The regulatory effect of H2O2 on both the cytotoxic activity and the specific binding of TNF-alpha was studied by using TNF-alpha-sensitized murine L929 cells. When these cells were exposed simultaneously to TNF-alpha and H2O2 (100 to 500 microM), the cytotoxic activity of TNF-alpha was inhibited by up to 66.6%. This inhibition was also effective when the cells were pretreated by H2O2, but not when TNF-alpha alone was preexposed to H2O2. These data suggest that H2O2 altered the cell sensitivity to TNF-alpha, without modifying the activity of the TNF-alpha molecule. Maximum loss of cell sensitivity to TNF-alpha occurred after 30-min preexposure to 500 microM H2O2. Complete restoration of TNF-alpha sensitivity was obtained within 12 h after H2O2 removal. It required protein synthesis as demonstrated by the suppressive effect of actinomycin D. The inhibitory effect of H2O2 was suppressed by catalase, but was unaffected by the scavengers of hydroxyl radical and hypochlorous acid, suggesting that H2O2 but not one of its metabolites was responsible for this inhibition. H2O2 inhibitory effect did not implicate any change in prostaglandin production or in PKC activity. In contrast, H2O2 effect was associated with an about 50% loss of the density of cell membrane 125I-TNF-alpha receptors (2949 vs 5620 binding sites per cell), without change in their affinity (3.9 vs 3.4 nM). Moreover H2O2 did not affect the rate of degradation of TNF-alpha, and only slightly increased the degree of internalization of 125I-TNF-alpha receptors. These findings indicate that H2O2 can down-regulate the cellular response to TNF-alpha, possibly by reducing the TNF-alpha-binding capacity.